• Joanna Kreke

Dean Speaker Series: Self-Injurious Behavior

Content Warning: Descriptions and discussions of blood, injuries and self-harm

On March 31 at 5 p.m., Mount St. Mary’s University held its first Dean Speaker Series event. The presenter was Director of Applied Behavioral Analysis and Assistant Professor, Dr. Griffin Rooker. According to the flyer sent throughout the university, his presentation was titled “Applied Behavioral Analytic Research on Self-Injurious Behavior.”

Rooker defined self-injurious behavior as “Behavior that produces wounds to one’s own body in individuals.” He specified that these individuals usually had “intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Only 15% of those with IDDs display SIB; he described three types of IDDs that may result in SIB. According to Rooker, roughly 100% of those with Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome, more than 90% of those with Prader Willi Syndrome and 30%-50% of those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders display SIB. According to the combined data from two 2015 studies, there are roughly 18 million people in the U.S. who suffer from SIB.

Rooker provided a multitude of examples of self-injurious behavior including head-banging, self-biting, eye-poking, self-scratching, hair-pulling and head-hitting. These also vary in severity. Eye-poking could be as mild as pressing one’s eyes until they see different colors or as severe as damaging their retinas. Over time, continuous damage to the eyes as well as the surgery needed afterward will result in worsening vision and sometimes even blindness. It is important to note that SIB and self-harm such as cutting are not the same things.

If SIB causes pain, why would people do it? Rooker presented two explanations: behavioral and neurobehavioral. Behavioral means that “[e]veryday events encouraging and supporting the behavior.” Neurobehavioral means that “[m]anifestation of altered biology coming in contact with everyday events.” He stressed that “a functional-environmental account of SIB does not deny that biological factors may be the initial source of SIB [and/or] contributing to the on-going occurrence of SIB; however, it largely puts this to the side.”

Functional-analysis is used to test the types of SIB a person has as well as what causes the behavior. It is imperative to know what could trigger a person to harm themselves in order to prevent them from hurting themselves. One method to do this is through trial and error, similar to an allergy test. It is done in a controlled environment in order to prevent injuries.

There are two types of SIB that could occur: socially reinforced and automatically reinforced. Socially reinforced is where “SIB occurs to get something mediated by someone else.” For example, a parent takes a child’s toy away which triggers the child’s SIB. Another example would be if someone demands a task be done which triggers a person’s SIB. Automatically reinforced is where “SIB occurs independently of social mediation of others.” For example, a person’s SIB is triggered regardless of the situation. Another example would be if a person’s SIB is triggered only when alone. People’s SIB might be triggered through sensory stimulation according to a 1995 study; production of opioids according to a 2004 study; or pain attenuation according to a 2000 study.

There is another type of SIB called nonclinical-automatically-reinforced SIB. There was an experiment done where people were recruited from a farmer’s market and church. At the start of the experiment, they were all shocked and then given five dollars. They were asked how much of that five dollars they would pay to not be shocked again. All of them said some sort of amount. Then they were left in an empty room for 15 minutes without their phones and only the device that shocked them. The experiment found that “65% of men and 25% of women chose to administer a shock to themselves during the waiting period (some up to [nine] times).” Rooker added that the experiment concluded that “bad stimulation might be better than no stimulation,” referring to the fact that SIB causes pain and yet people still do it.

Students were able to attend this lecture to learn more on the subject. “ I attended the event because I was interested in applied behavior research and one of my Psychology professors said we could receive extra credit if we attended,” shared Ebony Coby (C’23). Coby stated that she is now considering the Applied Behavior graduate program because of the lecture. “I think Dr. Rooker gave a very informational and impactful talk on the topic which could lead many students to want to choose the applied behavior path for their next steps!”